Three years ago Queen Latifah flipped the script with The Dana Owens Album, letting us know that blues and jazz were just as much a part of her program as beats and flow. With a “been there, done that” attitude, she left hip-hop behind and moved into other territories. Unsurprisingly, confidence was everywhere in the new music. The singer had already received kudos for another move that widened her career circle: starring in such films as Bringing Down the House, Last Holiday, and Chicago. The same swagger that marked her approach to rap was central to her acting and singing. (Check her latest VH1 show, Bridging the Gap, which connects her with Eve.)
Now she’s back with Travelin’ Light, a smart follow-up to that jazzy debut that packs an even bigger punch. If performance is about charisma and commitment, Latifah is pushing all the right buttons. Some tracks explode, some get overtly sultry, and on the sweet bossa nova “Quiet Nights” she makes some tough vocal maneuvers seem like a breeze. We sat down for a chat about her new musical persona.
VH1: You sang live in front of the band on some tracks. It must be exciting to have those horns wailing right in front of you on something like “I’m Going To Live Until I Die.”
QUEEN LATIFAH: It’s the song I’m coming out to our tour. It’s my life anthem. I want to be someone who lives life to the fullest. I had a great example from my 94-year-old grandmother who took it ‘til the end. The pace of the song and energy is fun. And yeah, it’s a kick. I’ve been a big Sarah Vaughan fan, but I didn’t know that one. Prepping for this disc I bought a bunch of jazz – a whole lot of Quincy Jones. And what struck me was how lush his big band sound was. I made myself calm down eventually, but I knew I wanted something strong like this.
You say your mother was really into Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man.” It’s something you used to always hear around your house?
When I’m remembering that, it’s a Saturday morning and there’s incense burning in the house – Egyptian musk or something – it’s a spring day and a breeze coming through the window, we’re cleaning, and things smells fresh. It’s a good feeling.
When you were a kid, did you consider stuff like that to be music for old folks?
Nah, I was into it. We were a musical family. My brother became a DJ and he love d to sing falsetto stuff like The Stylistics. My parents met while singing in a doo-wop group. They were in a couple different groups, and he said “You should come sing with us,” or, you know, whatever they said back then to get girls to do what they wanted. Also, my aunt is a choir director, so music has a profound in my family. When we decided to cut the song I say “Mom, I’m thinking about ‘Poetry Man.’ She said ‘You know that’s my song. Go for it.’ She recently came by my house when I was cleaning the garage. I was listening to my iPod, and when I went inside for something my friend turned on my new album. When I came back to the garage “Poetry Man” was just ending and my mom had heard it. I was nervous, like truly nail-biting nervous, like “oh my god, she heard it.” And then she said “Dana, I love it. You stuck to the original but you did it your way.”
I could breathe again.
Hey you don’t just mess with people’s records.
That’s why there’s no Aretha Franklin on this album. I’m ain’t messing with no RiRi! You don’t just jump on no RiRi record unless you can handle it. And, c’mon now, who can, really?
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Lots of sexy stuff this time around. I like the coo you bring to “Sugar In My Bowl.”
Oh yeah, oh yeah. And actually we edited some of it out. We had “hot dog in my bun,” and all that. It was like, “Okay I think we’re pretty clear on what that means.” But that kind of stuff was part of the fun back then. They would use all sorts of metaphors. If they wanted a little sumpun sumpun, it was never in your face. It was more poetic – great lyrics.
Do your newfound acting chops help you sell that kind of character?
I think so. But you get that experience just as making records and videos, too. As a rapper you’d have to act out some of the things your trying to express. But acting definitely helps. When I do “Lush Life” live, I can take myself to a nightclub in Paris and I’m drinking cocktails and watching people feeling lonely; I’m feeling like I’m part of a sorority of lonely hearts. I take myself there mentally. I have always had a big imagination as a kid. That never died for me. Like why people who do Broadway let their minds go.
I like your bossa nova track. That stuff seems easy, but it really isn’t. It’s all about nuance, right?
You know what? For me “Quiet Nights” is all about rhythm and syncopation. There are times when rapping has really helped me because you have to jump on certain pockets and different rhythms. When we recorded I adlibbed a whole bunch and the band followed me, so there’s a whole section that’s actually an exchange – real fun. I wanted a vibe, a darkness and masculinity in there because it’s so moody and sexy and Brazilian. You’re talking about going to the place where lovers go, and all that. But there is a lot of rhythm on it. The band captured the essence. It can’t be heavy. Some people overdo it. I hope I’ll become known for NOT oversinging a song. So many singers try fancy stuff and miss the whole melody. Some are great at it. But those who are not great at it, butcher it. They give you a bunch of seasoning and no meat.